Review 1301: The Paragon Hotel

Cover for The Paragon HotelAlice “Nobody” James is on the run from the Mafia with two bullets in her at the beginning of The Paragon Hotel. She is obviously in distress when her train arrives in Portland, Oregon, so Max, the African-American railway porter, takes her to the Paragon Hotel. The hotel is the only one in Portland for respectable Negroes in the 1920’s, when this novel is set. In fact, it is illegal for them to even live or work in Portland.

Alice is grateful for the help, and soon after recovering gets to know some of the residents and employees of the hotel. In particular, she is drawn to Blossom Fontaine, a chanteuse who reminds her of a friend she had in New York. When Alice finds that the occupants of the hotel are worried about the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in Portland, she decides to help them with her skills in investigation—for she was a spy for Mr. Salvatici, a man known as the Spider, back in Little Italy.

As Alice and her new friends prepare to battle bigotry, a little boy disappears. The novel follows the search for the boy while flashing back to explain how Alice ended up being wounded by her own friend, Nicolo Benemati.

link to NetgalleyI have been a fan of Lyndsay Faye for a long time, but I did not find this novel as compelling as her others. I wasn’t interested at all in the Mafia story. I was more interested in the Portland story, but somehow the characters didn’t ring true to me, particularly Alice herself. Faye seems to have written this novel to explore Portland’s long racist history, which I found interesting, but it gets off track onto other issues.

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Day 659: The Prague Cemetery

Cover for The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery opens in 1897 with a monologue that is so vile and bigoted against just about everyone—the French, the Germans, the Italians, Jesuits, Masons, women, and especially Jews—that I almost put it down at that point. That monologue is the ranting of the main character, Simonini, as learned at his grandfather’s knee. Simonini is an absolutely repellent person who makes his living forging wills and other documents but who also works for the French secret police, and the German secret police, and the Okhrana, making up lies and creating international incidents.

Simonini has a problem. He has gaps in his memory. Further, when he explores a passage in his house, it leads to the rooms of someone who wears a cassock. Following the advice of an Austrian Jew (whom he calls Froïde), he begins writing down what he can remember of his life. The next time he awakens, he finds his diary annotated by the Abbe Della Piccola, who seems to remember the time periods he cannot but doesn’t remember the others. It is soon obvious that these are two personas of the same man.

Simonini is already a forger when he begins his first employment in espionage, spying on the leadership of Garibaldi’s army for the Piedmontese secret police. He always ends up exceeding his orders, though, so when he blows up the ship containing Ippolito Nievo, who is in charge of Garibaldi’s finances, instead of simply assuring the books go to the government and nowhere else, he is shipped off to Paris.

Simonini is most concerned with the fate of what he considers his life work, a document that is supposed to be a true account of a meeting of eminent rabbis—and one Jesuit—in the Prague cemetery, where they plot against the Gentiles and scheme for world domination. Although Simonini has plagiarized some of this document from other sources, he has fabricated most of it, including the setting. Over the course of 40 years, he perfects this document, eliminating the Jesuit and changing it to a series of protocols, all the while trying to sell it to different governments. It is this document that becomes the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used by the Nazis and other hate-mongers through the years to justify anti-Semitism, even though everyone involved in its creation knew the document was apocryphal.

Although this tale is supposed to be some sort of answer to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, being based on actual instead of made-up events, and though it is told with proper postmodern irony, it left a bad taste in my mouth. As Simonini and his abettors make up more and more ridiculous stories linking, say, the Masons to Satanic rites, with the public gleefully believing everything, I felt disgusted. Almost every character in the novel except Simonini was an actual person, and all the events the novel is based on are true, which makes it even more disturbing. Eco even has Simonini responsible for framing Dreyfus. Simonini also murders people and dumps their bodies in the sewer beneath his house.

Maybe I agree with one reviewer that some readers may not understand irony. I’m not sure. The construction of a truly dark and repellent protagonist reminded me of the novel Perfume, except that I enjoyed Perfume. I just know that although I have a dark sense of humor myself, this novel made me want to take a bath.

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